What service design IS, and what it IS NOT

There continues to be a lot of discussion on what service design IS, and what it IS NOT.

While many may balk at the ongoing “definition of service design” debate, it’s clear that it is a useful one in order to make sure we are all talking about the same thing. Below are the conflations and correlations put forth throughout the discussion, each deserving clarification.

Picture from H. Michael Karshis

“Service” from H. Michael Karshis

Service design and design

Assertion:  Service designers think they design everything and own everything, end-to-end.

Let’s clear some things up.

Service design is specifically talking about the process and act of designing services.

Design is broadly talking about the process and act of design, without indicating the focus or “object” (tangible or intangible) of design.

Service design is not the design of everything. Design is the design of everything. Service design is a specialisation, just as graphic design, industrial design, and interaction design are specialisations. Each of these specialisations work with a particular form. If I’m designing a service, I am either designing the end-to-end view of the service, or designing a service moment. Within that service, there are environments, systems, people, and tools. I may not have the expertise to design the specific system, nor the expertise to design the environment in which the service sits, but I need to know the intent, what these things need to achieve in support of the service. My work as a service designer can serve as a brief for other specialists, or better yet, we are working together, the designers with specialisation, to make a cohesive whole together.

If I was a furniture designer, I would need to have some fundamental knowledge around purpose, characteristics of furniture, the potential material of furniture and the different ways in which furniture can be built. I may not manufacture the furniture in the end, but I need to understand the fundamentals of manufacturing to design something that can be manufactured (or I work with manufacturers to see the best way to build it). I can push the envelope with this, I can question the foundational elements of furniture design and try to shift it. It is only in understanding the fundamentals, those foundations, that I can successfully shift away from them.

This is where we are getting to with services. Services have fundamental aspects to them that we can become expert in, even if we are not the ultimate ‘builders’ of the service. I’m exploring service frameworks that can help us better understand the characteristics of services, the ultimate form of our work.

Service design and design thinking and human-centred design

Assertion:  Service design and design thinking and human-centred design are basically the same thing.

No, no, no. They are not.

Service design is specifically talking about the design of services.

Design thinking is about the act of applying design process, tools and methodology to problem solving, without indicating the focus or “object” (tangible or intangible) of design. You could be using design thinking for the design of a service, but you might also be using design thinking to design an organisational strategy. Or come up with ideas for how to launch your marketing campaign. Or how to come up with your customer value proposition. Or how to address student truancy. Or “name that org challenge”. The point is, design thinking is meant to be a toolkit for problem solving. There is nothing about design thinking that suggests it is tied to any one problem space. In fact, it is explicitly non-committal to the problem space. This is what makes it so entirely appealing to the business world looking for better ways of working, no matter what industry they work in.

Human-centred design is putting the people for whom we are designing at the heart of the design process. They need to be engaged and participate through the process, from insight gathering through to exploration and evaluation of designed possibilities, as they are the ultimate recipients of the designed outcome. Human-centred design is equally non-committal to the problem space and the object of design. A furniture designer should be human-centred, understanding the context and needs of the people who will be using the furniture. A graphic designer should be human-centred, in understanding the context and the needs of people who will be engaging the materials designed. A service designer should be human-centred in understanding the context and the needs of people who will be engaging with the service. Design thinking should always be applying a human-centred methodology to problem solving.

Service design and customer experience design

Assertion:  Service design and customer experience design are the same thing.

There’s some overlap, but it’s not a clear overlap.

Every organisation is a service organisation. If you are a business, you are providing a service to someone or to another organisation.

Every organisation therefore has a customer. That customer has an experience that can and should be designed. Often with customer experience design, we talk about the customer’s journey, and how that intersects with the business. Sometimes this is a cradle-to-grave view, of how a customer might engage with a business over time. This might intersect with one service; it may intersect with many services. What would make that particular piece service design is if you are also designing the organisational experience in delivering that service or services. The yin with the yang. The front stage and the back stage.

Service design is specifically talking about the design of services, which inherently is looking at the customer’s experience with a service as well as the organisational experience in delivering it. Customer experience may break free from the specificity of a service and look across time, across services, or within very specific moments.

Service design and successful implementation

Assertion:  Service design agencies come in and make great strategies that go in drawers because they don’t understand how things work within a business.

If it’s going in a drawer, we haven’t succeeded. This is not an agency issue. This is an engagement issue. I could just as well be in-house and asserting service strategies that go no where. The key to this is beginning of the design process. If we aren’t designing something for an organisation’s realities, then we’re not doing our job. If we’ve crafted an amazing customer experience that could never, ever come to life with the organisation as it sits today, nor is there ambition to transform, then we have failed.

That said, we have an amazing opportunity to help an organisation see that it could change, see what it would need to become, and support them through a process of determining how far they are willing to go to be the kind of business that delivers THAT kind of service experience.

Service design as strategy versus service design as tactical

“Service design takes on too much, thinks it can handle too much”
“Service design gets caught up in the clouds, at a scale where things can’t come to life”
“Service design shouldn’t play a strategic role, it should play a tactical, tangible role”

Why can’t service design be both strategic and tactical? Isn’t helping an organisation imagine a future where their service is transformed a critical and worthy task? Why shouldn’t design be at the table for that? Isn’t helping an organisation transform and bring something to life also a worthy task? You can decide to make something tangible and testable early, regardless if you are at a strategic point or a tactical point. If you have a personal preference for working on something where you are part of the team building it and implementing it, excellent! We need great designers doing just that. It doesn’t make the strategic work any less value nor important. The pressure is on us to create something that an organisation can bring to life ultimately. I’ll take on that challenge happily.


Explore examples of our service design projects through our case studies.

  • Franco

    September 1, 2016 at 11:36 am Reply

    For me service design is a: prolonged act of harmony between people of different disciplines and thoughts.
    where servers and served, agree to bring forth a “unified whole” of labels, meanings and processes at different levels, but with the possibility of being actuated simultaneously and convergent manner.

    Maybe we could get very close to see the point of origin and end of a service designed.
    But try to size or package the user experience? impossible.
    Of course there is the user experience, in fact is very concrete, easily even we know it is successful or not, but at the same time is not substantially existent, that do not know where begins nor where it ends.

    Furthermore, as experience is an emotional and cultural reaction (that after we can rationalize, label and store in the memory of a present), we can not know whether yesterday’s experience will be the same as today, or tomorrow’s, and all this multiplied by the wide range of potential users.

    … And that’s fascinating, phenomenologically speaking, but very long proceeding.

    Thanks for the space of reflection. it’s interesting.


    • Janna

      September 1, 2016 at 7:59 pm Reply

      Thanks, Franco. It is a dance, indeed! An important one.

  • Kartik Sharma

    September 1, 2016 at 8:22 pm Reply

    Janna, I feel like Service Designers are just what the term suggest – designers of services. Yes, it involves some design and yes it means the delivery of services. Just like a specialism is Visual Design so is Service Design. I do think that the reach can be quite wide, especially at the moment when it’s still a budding ‘art’ form. You do need to be reaching far and wide to deliver on the service as a consultant or an internal employee. But that should come naturally to you 🙂

    The definition also varies both, internally as well as externally. The assertions you presented above are great though-starters and definitely help people like me who are in the industry. I feel as though organisations will embrace this over time. For now, CX carries most of the SD side in so many businesses. No harm there.

    Give it time and there will probably be clear specialisms.

    Some great thoughts in this piece – thanks for sharing.

    Kartik Sharma

    • Janna

      September 1, 2016 at 8:38 pm Reply

      Thanks, Kartik, for your thoughts! At the end of the day, all I care about is that we are doing the best design work we can for organisations, no matter what we’re called. If you get to design services as a part of your remit, all the better! That you get to design within an organisation or with an organisation at all is the best starting point. It will be interesting to see how service design progresses.

  • Stephanie Owen

    September 5, 2016 at 6:48 pm Reply

    Thanks Janna for the great explanation and for covering some very important issues that organisations, in their rush to embrace the latest “improvement techniques”, don’t always think through. From my observation, two issues stand out especially: CX over service design, and implementation. I agree with what you’ve already said but here are some additional thoughts.

    (1) CX vs SD: Some CX projects (and their business owners) ignore the organisational experience of delivering the service, to their peril. Many people may not be aware, but service blueprinting has been around since at least the early 1990s but the then-dominant “process reengineering” movement focused on the back stage to the detriment of customer service, because organisations’ driving focus was efficiency. Now, as CX becomes the differentiator, some organisations make the opposite error and focus only on the front stage, and find that they are unable to deliver properly because they have not considered the back stage activities. I agree with you Janna that good service design needs to consider both.

    (2) Implementation: of any major change is not easy, and never has been. It is unrealistic to expect service design to solve all these problems. Conversely, some service designers assume that a good design will be easy to implement. Easier, yes. Easy – no. There are a host of issues that need to be addressed that are in the domain of program and project management, change management, HR, etc. and so much will depend on the context and overall maturity of the rest of the organsiation. Collaborative design can go a long way to engage with these functional experts, but what makes co-design powerful also makes its intensity difficult to sustain over a long change journey. I think the ideal setup is a good collaboration between implementation-aware service designers and SD-aware implementers.

    Look forward to more conversations and keep up the good work!!

    • Janna

      September 5, 2016 at 7:06 pm Reply

      Thanks, Stephanie, for your thoughts. No complex situation can ever be solved nor managed by one group, totally agree. There are a lot of ways in which we can be designing the transition, designing the path from current state to future state. Again, we may not be able to do all of the parts, but we can perhaps break it down and make the change steps less severe or, at least, more iterative and experimental. Much to explore in that space, indeed!

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  • Richard Ekelman

    September 9, 2016 at 1:02 am Reply

    “If we aren’t designing something for an organisation’s realities, then we’re not doing our job. If we’ve crafted an amazing customer experience that could never, ever come to life with the organisation as it sits today, nor is there ambition to transform, then we have failed.”

    I think this cuts through a lot of noise to the essence of what makes service design different. Our work is systemic and grounded in the realities of the people and business opportunities. I hate to stories of people spending the money to bring in an agency that just wants to sell what they offer regardless of whether it solves a problem. So often the right solution is small sustainable changes, but firms are still stuck on selling service design in a way that is deliverables based versus structuring projects around access and time. It is a very good time to be a service designer, especially here in Chicago, but unfortunately firms muck it up trying to sell our work the same way they sell Hybris implementation projects or ad campaigns.

    I loved the article, hopefully, some day soon we can read about how service design firms started creating their own services and just flat out start beating the competition. If you could design and build a service, the revenue model would blow a typical 300k engagement out of the water.

    • Janna

      September 9, 2016 at 6:24 am Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts, Richard! Agree agree agree. If organisations can’t become what they need to, our work goes in the drawer. No matter how interesting and engaging the process of design was.

  • Amy Sheppard

    March 27, 2017 at 1:14 am Reply

    Great article Janna. I found it a helpful articulation of the differences and similarities between different terms in the industry. There is still a large amount of confusion or lack of understanding with business stakeholders. I also find the use of the term UX to be confusing in that all design should be considering the user experience. It’s often used to describe Interaction Design. Anyhow, I’m interested in how you explain things to your business stakeholders, or do you find it’s just a matter of educating them along the way?

    • Janna

      April 22, 2017 at 2:46 am Reply

      Hey Amy! To your question, I typically speak about Design with our business stakeholders. Our focus of design changes based on the project or program of work. So, for example, if we were doing something around a website, we might talk about interaction design when we’re talking about engagement and flow. If we’re talking about that website as a touchpoint in a larger service flow, we would talk about service design. The focus of our design dictates what we’re applying design to.

  • […] design. Enter stage left, service design, arguably a relatively new player in the design arena. As Meld Studios points out, ‘service design is specifically talking about the process and act of designing […]

  • Angus

    May 29, 2017 at 10:58 am Reply

    Hi Janna,

    Really great article. I particularly liked / could relate to the below, but have struggled to articulate it. The “intent” as you put it, is critical.

    “I may not have the expertise to design the specific system, nor the expertise to design the environment in which the service sits, but I need to know the intent, what these things need to achieve in support of the service. My work as a service designer can serve as a brief for other specialists, or better yet, we are working together, the designers with specialisation, to make a cohesive whole together.”

    • Janna

      May 29, 2017 at 5:43 pm Reply

      Thanks, Angus! I think it’s important as there seems to be a perspective that service designers are trying to design/manage EVERYTHING. It’s just not possible!

  • Eh

    August 2, 2017 at 3:44 pm Reply

    I’m very confused here. As a service designer I must be involved from the start of the service development, right? Do I still call myself a service designer if I have been given a task to implement or deliver the service? For example, you are sitting in the IT department and you were asked to deliver the already developed service digitally.

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  • Simon Refn

    December 3, 2019 at 7:16 pm Reply

    Then there is the discussion about service design and UX Design. Where some people think it is the same or that Service Design is irrelevant. I see these two specializations having some aspects in common.


    • Janna DeVylder

      December 3, 2019 at 8:51 pm Reply

      I agree it can be similar, particularly when the service in question is a digital one. Unfortunately, having had that role in the past, I have rarely seen those given UX roles given the remit to influence the whole service experience (particularly to influence the inner-workings of how the org is set up to support and deliver the service when there are more than digital aspects to it). If we separate out the practice of design from object of design (service, touchpoint, furniture, graphics), whatever role title we are given may or may not have coverage of the object of design (all or part of it).

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